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All-area girls basketball: McNeal followed path to state finals
Janae McNeal wasn’t exactly groomed to become a successful athlete.
But with the people who surrounded the Courtland High School girls basketball standout growing up, she was bound to catch on.
McNeal’s brother is William & Mary cornerback Jesse McNeal. His best friend is University of Massachusetts defensive back Kirkland Nelms.
Nelms’ sister, Jennifer, played basketball for North Carolina, and served as a mentor to Janae.
There’s also the fact Janae and Courtland teammate Jessica Hairston often played two-on-two games with Jesse and Hairston’s brother Josh. The latter is a sophomore forward for the Duke men’s basketball team.
“She’s had so many positive role models to look up to, and that’s what’s kept her going,” said her father, also named Jesse McNeal. “Having the Hairstons there and especially the Nelms, it’s been a big inspiration for her. It’s given her people to look up to.”
Janae didn’t have to look up to many of her peers on the basketball court this past season.
The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 21.1 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 5.4 steals as she helped lead Courtland to a 30–1 record and its first appearance in the Group AA, Division 4 state championship game. The Cougars suffered a loss to unbeaten Millbrook in that contest, but that didn’t dampen their run.
It also didn’t stop Janae from becoming The Free Lance–Star girls basketball player of the year.
“What’s impressed me most about her this year was her ability to create things for us through defense, steals, forcing turnovers and rebounding,” Courtland first-year coach J.T. Nino said. “When she was able to do those things, it helped the team. It also helped her get an extra two to three buckets a game.”
That led to Janae’s career-high scoring average. She’s started for the Cougars since she was a freshman, but at one time there wasn’t much separation between her, Jessica Hairston, Anika Trent and Imani Fennell.
But the past two years, especially this past season, Janae has developed into Courtland’s go-to player. She was named the Battlefield District and Region I, Division 4 player of the year. The Virginia High School Coaches Association also named her first-team all-Group AA.
“I just kind of broke out of my shell and it just happened,” Janae said of her ascension into the role of the Cougars’ top player. “At first I was timid because I was young and there were a lot of juniors and seniors out there. But when I got comfortable it started to come a little bit easier.”
The 30-game winning streak for Courtland wasn’t expected to come easy. The Cougars had just eight players on their roster and no junior varsity squad. Nino usually used a six-player rotation, and they didn’t substitute at all in the state championship game.
But Janae said the situation brought the team closer and sharpened its focus.
“It was definitely difficult because we had to watch what we were doing at all times,” Janae said. “We couldn’t foul and we always had to have our heads in the game. We knew we needed each other because it was only so many of us.”
Janae is equally close with her brother and the extended family of athletes who have helped her along the way. Her father said she was always motivated when Jennifer would give her a North Carolina practice jersey to wear in Spotsylvania County Parks & Recreation leagues. Another Nelms sister, Jessica, a former Spotsylvania High and Riverbend standout, was an inspiration, too.
“They were always there for her,” the elder Jesse McNeal said. “I could only do but so much. When she saw other girls do it, it gave her something to shoot for.”
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